Why I avoid social media news feeds

Yesterday I invited Tony Kevin to lunch. He is a friend from Canberra whom I got to know as a frequent contributor to Eureka Street when I was editor. He's a former Australian diplomat and author who these days writes commentary on Russia. His 2017 book Return to Moscow reflects on his first visit in the 48 years since his posting there as a young diplomat at the height of the Cold War.

He told me that he's feeling demoralised because most editors reject his articles. He says they view them as too friendly to Russia. An exception is John Menadue, who today published Tony's Kerch Strait incident analysis, which scrutinises the pro-Ukrainian 'false narrative [that] is already solidifying in Western media'.

It's true that most people only want to read commentary they agree with. They don't want to be told their world view rests on shaky foundations, even if they're confident that this contrary view is wrong. If their news source includes unpalatable views, they will go elsewhere. Editors don't want to lose readers and most of them will only publish content that is is comforting. It makes commercial sense.

Science and tech communicator Ketan Joshi described 'algorithmic news' on ABC TV's The Drum on Monday. He said that Facebook and the like use their algorithms to create news that confirms their users' pre-existing views. If they gave them content with views they didn't like, chances are that the users would ditch the feed for a rival and revenues would drop.

People who've grown up with social media are particularly averse to discordant views. I'm from an older, more perverse generation that thrives on views we disagree with.

I like to avoid the journalistic junk food of social media news feeds. I don't even spend much time at The Guardian, which would have to be my own online comfort zone. Instead I pay money to Rupert Murdoch to subscribe to The Australian.

That goes against the grain and I don't like a lot of the views I read. But it makes me think, much more than content from The Guardian or the titles of Fairfax (now Nine Entertainment).

I often end up respecting commentators I disagree with. I have no doubt that grappling with diverse opinions gets me far closer to the truth than an algorithmic social media news feed would. But just as importantly, diverse news consumption habits also contribute to a less polarised society.

In The Australian this week, I read Greg Sheridan's argument for the rejection of UK prime minister Theresa May's Brexit deal. Sheridan didn't persuade me to change my mind, but he prompted me to identify exactly why I want to see the UK Parliament pass the deal.


Links: Menadue | The Drum

Parallel visits to Paris

I'd been in Paris for two months and winter was fast approaching. So last week it was good to land back in Sydney, where summer is in the air.

It's the season for catching up with family and friends. I tend to do that in small measure, so it's always a pleasure. Yesterday I enjoyed a visit from my niece, who was up from Melbourne, and there are a couple of friends I hope to see before Christmas.

One is Catherine Marshall, a former colleague from Eureka Street's publisher Jesuit Communications. She left the security of institutional employment about the same time as me, to become a freelance travel writer. She's had notable success at that, having recently been named the Australian Society of Travel Writers' Travel Writer of the Year, for the second year in a row.

I don't get excited by most of the travel writing I read in Fairfax and The Australian newspapers. That's because because economic reality ensures that it is heavy on either promotion or click-bait. But Catherine has a knack of doing the obligatory product placement in a way that does not interfere with the integrity of her observations and life musings.

I was particularly interested in her latest piece on a recent visit to Paris and how she felt she'd aged in the 25 years since her previous visit.

She writes of having returned to Paris with her best friend and original travelling companion. Both were 'wide-eyed young women visiting Europe for the first time'.

As it happens, their first visit to Paris would have been in 1993 - the year of my first visit. My subsequent visit was also not until many years later (2011).

Catherine describes her first visit as a 'fleeting, whirlwind blitz' that contrasts with their 2018 desire to 'discover the city at an unhurried pace'.

I think that my 1993 visit would have been even more fleeting than theirs.

Mine lasted a mere four hours. I was a 33 year old mature age backpacker on my first trip to Europe. I'd not had the opportunity to travel before, so I wanted to cram as much as possible into the short time available. So Paris was part of the 'five countries in five days' itinerary I'd planned for myself.

I recall finding my way to the Sacré-Coeur basilica at Monmartre, feeling judged on the Metro for being so unkempt, and being served 'two' (deux) espresso coffees when I thought I was asking for 'some' coffee (du café). Then it was time to board the train for Barcelona.

The unhurried pace of Catherine's return visit involved slowly gliding along the Seine in a glass-roofed Batobus tourist barge (the subject of her product placement). The unhurried pace of my present-day return visiting is about giving the city two months - instead of four hours - of my time, in the hope of a far greater return on my investment.


Link: Catherine's article

My war remembrance of Great-uncle Hugh

Today is my last day in Paris until March. It's around 11:00 am and I'm sitting in my room a few kilometres from the Arc de Triomph, where world leaders are gathered to commemorate the Armistice that ended World War One.

While I can't avoid the sound of the jets that I can hear flying overhead, I'm not watching it on TV and don't feel inclined to go anywhere near the event itself.

I don't have much time for communal war remembrance as it is most commonly practised. I've been disturbed by the politicisation of war remembrance that has accompanied the disproportionate promotion of the Anzac myth since the Howard years.

In Australia there is a highly selective regime of remembrance that chooses to exclude the Frontier Wars that killed large numbers of indigenous Australians, and also the many unsavoury aspects of war such as the mistreatment of women by our 'heroes'.

My view is that communal war remembrance should be more nuanced. It needs to include an element of contrition for the shameful actions, alongside legitimate pride for actions that went towards achieving what must be the greatest degree of global harmony in the history of humankind.

Yesterday a cousin of my mother's sent some information and photos of Great-uncle Hugh, who volunteered for military service as a 44 year old in 1915. He was killed in action as a Driver in the Australian Field Artillery in northern France in September 1917.

I've always known about my grandfather's service in these parts during this war, but the detail about Great-uncle Hugh was new to me. The electronic album included a clipping from a regional Victorian local newspaper.

It describes him as a farmer and member of the local Agricultural Society who was 'held in high esteem for his sterling character and industrious habits'. He was a single man who left Australia as a gunner with the artillery and was subsequently appointed as a driver.

Great-uncle Hugh was buried in Godewaersvelde British Cemetery, which is located near the Belgian border in northern France. That gives me the opportunity to go there - perhaps on Anzac Day next year - to engage in my own act of private war remembrance.

As a single man myself, I will contemplate his leaving Australia on the adventure of his lifetime without having to be mindful of fidelity to a partner and possibly children back home. Having seen mention of his 'sterling character', I will take that on face value and imagine him resisting temptation to take advantage of vulnerable local civilians he comes across during the course of his service and recreational downtime. As family, I will share ownership of any lapses.

I will be paying respect and hoping to establish a connection that includes a degree of familial affection and solidarity. I will not regard him as a demigod, or even a 'hero' as such. For it seems to be that he was just a man of his time doing what men of his time did, and that his time happened to be a particularly dangerous one.

Would I have done what he did? I don't know. The nearest I came was going to East Timor to join Caritas Australia's relief effort following the destructive events of August 1999. There were known threats to our security.

Some time later I received a mass produced certificate of appreciation from Prime Minister John Howard that implied I was some kind of minor war hero.

I wanted to toss it in the bin but my mother framed it and put it on her wall, potentially establishing a myth that I was in fact some kind of hero. When all I doing was saying yes to adventure that was being offered to me. There may have been something worthy about it, but essentially it was adventure and I wasn't a hero.

A life of creative randomness and circuitousness

I was touched when friend wrote to me this morning mentioning that he hadn't seen a 'tiny letter' from me in some time, suggesting he was worried that I might not be well.

The truth is that I am well, close to the end of my third two-month sojourn in Paris. I'm spending the weekend with my sister and her husband in rural Kent, England, after choosing to make the journey from Paris on the long-distance bus that includes the ferry crossing from Calais to Dover.

The email made me reflect that we all have 'signs of life' that we project - intentionally or otherwise - to friends, family, neighbours, and others. The signs are usually associated with habitual behaviour that is visible. When we break or vary our habits, it can seem that there is something awry.

Two years ago this month I started writing a letter - also referred to as a blog - almost every day. After a while it became less regular, and it's now over a month since I last posted during my visit to Luxembourg.

I didn't want to be bound to produce a piece of writing every day, as I was happily finished with the main part of my working life with all its deadlines and pressures. I wanted to become a free spirit and foster a certain creative randomness and circuitousness in what I do.

This is evident in many aspects of my life such as my choice the other day to travel using the old Dover ferry rather than the modern and more convenient Eurostar train.

While I haven't had a job as such for three years, this year I have started to undertake some paid 'hobby' employment. One of my part-time roles is to do English language subtitles for the Mubi arthouse movie streaming service, and the other involves compiling logs of oral history recordings for an academic at Sydney University.

I have also been doing more reading than usual, and continuing to keep up with my health and fitness regime, currently with a new dimension, which is my experimentation with the no sugar-low carb-high fat diet.

As I mentioned previously, my motivation is not to lose weight but rather to healthily enjoy the high fat part of the French diet, accepting that baguettes and cakes and pastries are definitely off the menu. I have faithfully kept this discipline and been rewarded with plenty of foie gras, duck confit, fatty sausages, and much more.

Will I stick with it into the future? I don't know. I contacted Thai Airways the other day and ordered raw vegetarian meals for my flights to Sydney, as that is the option that is most compatible with the diet. 

Where strong borders belong in the museum

I'm currently in Luxembourg for two days. I'd long been curious about the country that is the world's second richest and the EU's second smallest. It's a grand duchy, which is really no different to a monarchy ruled by a king or queen, except that its head of state is a grand duke.

Luxembourg itself is not on the tourist map because it's dominated by banks and is not a spectacularly charming city. But the natural landscape and the rural villages are another matter, as I discovered this morning when I decided to travel to Schengen.

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While it's only 33 km by road from the capital, Schengen is in a remote corner of the tiny country. It's where Luxembourg intersects with France and Germany, and it requires two separate regional buses to get there.

It's best known as the location of the 1985 signing of the Schengen agreement that abolished border controls between most EU countries, and a number of non-EU countries including Switzerland, Iceland and Norway.

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I enjoyed a visit to the European Museum, which is all about the vision for a Europe without borders and how that came to be realised. Reduced border controls were seen as an antidote to the nationalism that was responsible for the suffering and destruction of the two world wars of the 20th century.

Nationalism and strong borders go hand in hand, whereas international co-operation invites us to rethink the need for strong borders, which divide humanity artificially and, arguably, unnecessarily.

I was aware of this as I walked from Luxembourg into Germany and then into France, all in the space of less than half an hour. The regions I walked into - Saarland in Germany and Lorraine in France - have been passed between France and Germany, as recently as the 20th century.

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Does it really matter whether they're in France or Germany? Regional identity is one thing. It defines cultures. National identity is something else.

At the museum, the elephant in the room was the sad reality that the vision for a humanity united without borders is unravelling, with Europe's migrant crisis and the proliferation around the world of 'strong man' leaders who insist on strong borders.

The museum's focus on the lifting of border controls is intended to celebrate a remarkable achievement that is part of our present. The fear is that it will come to be viewed as a marking of the history of an idea that came and went.

The Parisian virtue of idleness

While I was working out at my Paris gym today, I was listening to a podcast of Geraldine Doogue's Saturday morning ABC radio program.

She was interviewing Irish professor Brian O'Connor on his book Idleness: A Philosophical Essay.

He was presenting idleness as a virtue, or at least a state of being that does not deserve a bad press.

The message is that many of us have to fill our lives with productivity because that's what our various insecurities demand. We have a craving for recognition and think that the only way of achieving that is to do something others will notice and give us credit for.

Was I working out in the gym because I want others to regard my body as easy on the eye?

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That was certainly part of my initial motivation a few years ago when I first started going to the gym in Sydney.

But these days - particularly here in Paris - it's just one of my various states of being. Gym time is thinking time, people watching time, podcast listening time, and body stretching time.

Perhaps it's idleness. At least I'm not a slave to anything, which is what you are if you are preoccupied with working hard to fulfill the expectations of others.

That is perhaps where there's a difference between the gym in Paris and the gym in Sydney.

In Sydney you're more likely to see people thrashing themselves in the hope of becoming something. In Paris - the home of existentialism - it's more a matter of being. As I see it, they're already proud of who they are, and some outsiders choose to regard that as arrogance.

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There's definitely a different energy, and our term 'work out' to describe what gym goers do seems strangely out of place in Paris. You're there because you're there. Of course you don't just sit around. You do pump iron and jump on the treadmill. But essentially it seems less about goal orientation.

My approach is much the same during the hours I'm not at the gym. I walk around the streets of the Marais every day with no particular purpose in mind.

Today I entered five or six small art galleries and looked at the paintings on the walls and chatted to the attendants. In one sense I was idle and just passing time. But I don't feel the time was 'wasted' because I'm at home now with a stimulating mix of vivid images in my mind. A variation on the physical high I experience after my return from the gym.

I sometimes wonder whether I should feel ashamed that I'm a few minutes walk from some of the world's most famous art museums including the Louvre and don't feel inclined to visit them. It's too much like hard work.

Eating fat and avoiding obesity

I'm back in Paris after four months in Australia. There's no doubt the Sydney winter was more comfortable than Paris' summer heatwave would have been. Especially in my tiny non-air conditioned top floor room.

Louvre Pyramid

Even the city's autumn weather is unseasonal, with daytime temperatures currently in the mid to high 20s. I'm wearing shorts, and sleeping at night under the cover of just a sheet. When I arrived here in March, I was greeted with snow and sub-zero temperatures.

That's not the only thing that's different this time around. I've decided to limit cake consumption and to suspend my half-baguette a day bread habit, in favour of one or two croissants a week and a few high-fat treats.

Croissant aux amandes

It's the result of reading a new healthy lifestyle book that my brother put me on to when I visited him six weeks ago.

The book is written by former Australian Cricket team physician Dr Peter Brukner and titled A Fat Lot of Good. It's part memoir and part commonsense interpretation of the ketogenic or low carb diet. The diet advocates maximising meat and fat and vegetables grown above the ground, and minimising grains and sugars and processed foods.

Peter Brukner A Fat Lot of Good

I know that there's no good reason for me to tamper with my choice of foods. For several years I've maintained a healthy weight and blood pressure and enjoyed a balanced diet.

When I mentioned it to my GP, he was not particularly fussed one way or the other, as long as I manage to contain my zeal and my portion sizes. He pointed to a study in The Lancet that challenges thinking that meals such as bacon and eggs for breakfast can be a healthy choice. The study suggests we should replace grains and sugars with vegetable rather than animal products.

My motivation in varying my diet is to enjoy some of the delicious high fat foods available to me here in France. My rationale is that if I'm prepared to say no to baguettes (high in carbs), I can opt for croissants (which are mostly butter and therefore high in fat).

Shopping basket

On my first day here, I headed for my nearby good food store Causses and brought home a duck terrine, Andouille pork sausage and vanilla butter. I've been using the vanilla butter to flavour the undeniably healthy broccoli I've steamed in the microwave.

I have long wondered why the French eat all these delicious foods while maintaining a low obesity rate (15% compared to 28% of Australians). Obviously portion control is a major factor. But I think that it's also their tendency to be less submissive to received orthodoxies.

According to Brukner, Australians have been duped in their acceptance in recent decades of the teaching that fat is bad and sugar is more or less OK.

The important thing is not to go to the other extreme and believe that fat is all good. The French don't believe fat is good or bad. They consume fat, and also sugar, in good measure.

My attitude to a healthy lifestyle is similar to my approach to religion. Our interests are best served when we take responsibility for our own choices and leave hard line preaching to the professional zealots.

UPDATE: I had an email exchange with Peter Brukner, who did not specifically mention croissants in his book. It turns out that they may be mainly butter, but they're still bread containing a significant proportion of carbs. So consuming them will be an occasional, not a daily, ritual. He also dismissed the 'crap research' contrary study that warned against animal product foods. He suggested it is discredited paid-for content from a commercial offshoot of the Lancet. He pointed me to articles and video that argue it is methodologically flawed data collected by individuals with a grain industry political agenda.



Links: Lancet | Causses

Laughing at mental illness

The Melbourne writer Isabella Fels often uses whimsy in telling of her experience of living independently with mental illness. In her article for Eureka Street this week, she writes about her unsuccessful attempt to learn to drive. 

She gently mocks what she describes as her instructor’s failure to understand her mental illness in a way that suggests it is as ham-fisted as her own efforts to master the fundamentals of driving a car. 

I feel for Isabella because she would fail to grasp a range of life skills due to her instructors’ inadequacies  – rather than her own. But the truth is that the instructors are frequently not up to the job because they do not have the preparation and resources necessary for dealing with people with special needs.

That is one of the conclusions of an author featured on yesterday’s NPR Fresh Air podcast. Her name is Alisa Roth, and she visited a range of prisons in the US to research her recently published book Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness.

In framing the incarceration and treatment of the mentally ill as the ‘next civil rights issue’, she has some sympathy for the much maligned corrections officers. 

‘They’re forced to play this dual role of caretaker and enforcer but, more complicated than that, is the fact that they really don't have the training ... to, say, identify schizophrenia versus depression.’

We can point the finger at the justice system. But there’s another book to be written about how our entertainment and media industries treat mental illness. They have an important role in normalisation efforts but they can shamelessly exploit mental illness for its perceived entertainment value.

I remember the controversy generated four years ago when the Perth Show was forced to cancel one of its amusements following a public outcry.

It was a recreation of London’s Bedlam psychiatric hospital where, in the 16th century, they raised funds by allowing members of the public to pay to visit so they could ridicule and taunt the residents.

I was reminded of this last week when a Prime7 regional TV news bulletin referred to the now closed Mayday Hills mental health facility at Beechworth in north-east Victoria as a former ‘lunatic asylum’. 

The new owners of the historic property have established a holiday park with a horror amusement aspect that includes the house featured in the 1998 Australian comedy film The Castle

This is how a local tourist website promotes Mayday Hills:

‘Evening Ghost Tours will take you through the deserted buildings, where your guide will share stories and myths of patients of likes of James Kelly, uncle of the notorious bush ranger Ned Kelly and Ida Pender the wife of gangster Squizzy Taylor.’

An American website called The Hauntist has an entry on the ‘Beechworth Lunatic Asylum’ claiming that ‘a quick search for haunted locations throughout the world will consistently place Beechworth Lunatic Asylum at the top of the list.’

Why does this sacred ground have to be repurposed in such a bizarre and offensive manner? I had a cousin who was periodically a resident at Mayday Hills in the 1970s. Was she a ‘lunatic’ in the ‘asylum’? 

The juxtaposition of mental illness and humour is a delicate undertaking. Andrew Denton mastered it back in the 1990s. Comedians such as Hannah Gadsby have taken it to new heights more recently. And Isabella Fels does it in her writing for Eureka Street. But the new Mayday Hills and its promoters take us back to a time of darkness and inhumanity.

Retiring with imagination

It’s mid-winter in southern Australia. The weather is variable, with a comfortable 23 degree day ahead of us today in Sydney. Crops are failing in rural areas due to unusually dry conditions, even though Sydney had its rainiest June in decades.

Usually the weather affects just my spirits and how much walking I can do around the city. But on Sydney’s wildest and wettest day – Tuesday 19 June – I had three appointments that prevented me from sheltering in the comfort of my home.

At one moment I got caught in a freak horizontal rain storm. I think that was responsible for contaminated rainwater leaking into the space between my left eye and its contact lens. 

The result was a serious eye infection that had me feeling very sick one night and turning up to Emergency at the Sydney Eye Hospital in the hours before dawn. For nearly three weeks now, I’ve had the best of care and expect my health to be back normal shortly, though I won’t be wearing my contact lenses until at least the end of the month.

Until the past few days, I’ve been unable to look at screens or read printed matter. But I’ve enjoyed listening to all the podcasts of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which took place in May. It’s as if I attended the event in person, as I did the Sydney Film Festival a few weeks later.

Lying in my warm bed listening to the various conversations without the distraction of screens turned out to be an unusually pleasant and stimulating experience. But I wouldn’t say the same about trying to navigate the aisles of the supermarket not being able to read the labels on the different products. That has given me a genuine insight into how people feel marginalised by their disabilities and health conditions.

It has me thinking about a talk I’ve been invited to give to fellow retirees at the beginning of next month at the local University of the Third Age (U3A) in Cootamundra in south-west NSW. 

With the anxieties of youth and middle age behind them, so-called retirees can focus on looking after and fine-tuning the various dimensions of their lives, and possibly enjoying a more fulfilled life in their later years than earlier. I'm referring to health, finances and imagination.

It is imagination which tends to get less airplay when we decide on how to configure and manage our post-work lives. Yet it is every bit as important as our health and our finances. Without it we might stay working even though we no longer really enjoy it. Or just retire and allow boredom to set in.

The ‘grey nomads’ who tour Australia with their motor homes tend to be making the most of their imagination. For me, imagination led to my purchase of a room in Paris to use as a base for four months of the year. Which is what prompted the invitation from my Cootamundra friend to address her U3A chapter on the topic of ‘Living a Double Life’.

Wilson conviction exposes Australian bishops’ lack of contrition

In January this year, a friend took his own life while suffering psychological torture that was apparently caused by a priest sexually abusing him in Newcastle more than 40 years ago.

I think of him when I reflect on Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson’s conviction this week for covering up the claim of another sexual abuse victim in that diocese around the same time.

Nothing is known of the circumstances of my friend’s sexual abuse. But I can’t help wondering that if church personnel in positions of authority had routinely acted on knowledge or suspicion of sexual abuse, he might have been spared the suffering that led to his suicide.

Instead they failed to act because priority was given to preserving the good name of the church. There was a culture of arrogance that appeared to value the integrity of the institution ahead of the welfare of the people it purported to serve.

Unfortunately it appears - to me at least - that there has been a lack of fundamental change in the attitude of the Australian bishops as a body.

Yesterday a friend wrote in an open Facebook post addressed to the Australian bishops: ‘If it were appropriate for every one of Chile’s Bishops to tender their resignations to the Holy Father, why is it appropriate that a convicted criminal ... retains his position [as Archbishop of Adelaide]?’

He was referring to the Chilean bishops’ recent acceptance of their failings and their offer to resign. Pope Francis had accused them of destroying evidence of sexual crimes, putting pressure on investigators to downplay abuse accusations and showing ‘grave negligence’ in protecting children from paedophile priests.

According to testimony heard by the Royal Commission, that is exactly what took place in Maitland-Newcastle Diocese under Bishop Leo Clarke. Clarke was Archbishop Wilson’s superior at the time, and Archbishop Wilson was required to dance to his tune.

As it happens, Archbishop Wilson did decide to step down late yesterday. But only after dragging his feet and being supported in doing so by Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference President Archbishop Mark Coleridge.

Why was it left to Archbishop Wilson - with his understandable lack of objectivity - to decide on such a crucial matter? How could it be that a convicted criminal was allowed to continue to serve as Archbishop of Adelaide and to make that decision himself? Surely Archbishop Coleridge should have  publicly exhorted him to stand down immediately after his conviction, if not before (Coleridge does not have the authority to remove him).

Moreover I interpreted Archbishop Coleridge’s short statement after Wilson’s conviction as a slapping down of the criminal justice system and, by implication, the victims whom it had vindicated. Why was it relevant for Coleridge to mention in such a brief document that Archbishop Wilson ‘maintained his innocence throughout this long judicial process’? To me, Archbishop Coleridge appeared to be publicly questioning his colleague’s criminal conviction.

As a recent President of the Bishops Conference, Archbishop Wilson was a leading light in the Bishops’ attempts to implement programs and policies to protect children at risk. He seems to be of good character. However the court has decided that he has a criminal past that he must atone for.

If I ask myself whether I want him to go to jail, I have to say yes. If he doesn’t, there will be little or no justice for those whom he failed all those years ago. They are individuals who remind me of my clergy sex abuse victim friend who did not receive justice and took his own life.